Reflections on Open Networked Learning

When I registered for the course Open Networked Learning, I did it on a whim. I knew that I wanted to develop my pedagogical skills in delivering online courses. And this pet interest of mine was becoming increasingly relevant because of the shift to online learning (or what some are calling 'emergency remote teaching') taking place in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was put on the waitlist, and several days later I was admitted to the course as an open learner. Several months later, and after many zoom meetings, webinars, padlets, and breakout rooms, the course ended. This blog post will be the last component of my official participation in the course.

What I will take away from this course is, first and foremost, the experience of experiencing a course underpinned by problem-based and networked learning. In one of our group meetings, we reflected how the pedagogical design of the course on Open Networked Learning made the medium the message. That is, the embodied process of engaging in our problem-based learning groups and navigating the associated challenges was equally as learningful as the content provided. Or perhaps they were learningful in different and complementary ways. The process gave me the lived experience of collaborative online learning, and the tacit understanding of what it means to be a student engaged in such learning. The course materials (as well as my independent exploration of the literature) gave me the language and theories to express how this learning happens and how to build courses to facilitate collaborative learning online.

For as long as I have been a teacher, I have been acutely aware of the importance of interaction and community in learning. And this has always been the root of one of my biggest reservations about delivering more courses online. I've been skeptical about the transformative learning potential of online interactions. I say this as an active member of a variety of online communities from which I derive great value. However, most of my online relationships would be characterised as weak ties. That is, I have online acquaintances rather than online friends. The feelings of trust and reciprocity that I have with acquaintances is much less than that I have with friends, and trust and reciprocity are important preconditions to enable the vulnerability and risk-taking that collaborative learning requires.

My involvement in my problem-based learning group (PBL07) within the course on open networked learning (ONL202) unsettled my pre-existing beliefs about relationship building in online learning. I have written previously about our group's unusual online learning experience. We sang together, drew together, chatted together at all hours. In fact, our WhatsApp chat was so lively that our group facilitator turned off his notifications because we were so distracting. We did all of this without having met physically.

We created an environment that was both playful and caring. In a debate we staged to talk about the pros and cons of open learning, we mischievously teased one another to provoke responses. When I had an unexpected visit to the hospital, a group member stepped in to cover for me. When I later watched a video recording of the discussion I was meant to lead, my group members spoke directly to me with get-well-soon messages, knowing that I would watch the recording.

A meme we created as a submission for the course.

We built a group identity: we, PBL07, were the boundary-pushers of ONL202. Each topic, we tried to out-do our previous assignments. We tried a haiku to top a GIF, which was meant to top a video. The video was to out-do our debate, which competed with the song we submitted as our first assignment. (Though, to be honest, the song was un-top-able since it was the catalyst that brought our group together.)

All of this is to say that I now believe that powerful relationships can be developed through online learning. I don't mean to say that online relationships are the same as in-person relationships or could even be a substitute. On the contrary, in-person and online relationships are fundamentally different. But, through taking part in Open Networked Learning, I now give greater credence to the role of interpersonal relationships in online learning.

This has directly impacted the design of a new course I am developing. I am going to place a greater emphasis on students interacting in smaller groups on a week-to-week basis. I'm also going to use strategies that I already use for in-person teaching to help develop a greater sense of community and shared cohort identity.

Previously, I felt that any of these efforts would be a lost cause, that I wouldn't get student buy-in, or, at best, it would feel a bit clunky. I can now see that it doesn't need to be that way. Like teaching in-person, projecting confidence generates student buy-in. Experimentation through trial-and-error is necessary to identify and create effective strategies for engagement. Buy-in and student interaction is shaped by the students in the (virtual) room. I am grateful for this opportunity to learn and develop, and I encourage anyone teaching online to sign up to the next iteration of the course in February 2021!

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